Taking your law office paperless - step by step

Whether you are a small or large law firm, your business will mostly be based on documents. Legal documents, correspondence, and also a lot of administrative stuff (think invoices and such). Being a lawyer has always meant that you find yourself surrounded by a lot of paper.

Office worker surrounded by paper

Paper is everywhere

Even though modern IT solutions might have allowed you to use less paper for years now, through for example your document management system or high-tech scanning solution, there is a large chance that the amount of paper around you, is still the same. This might be due to several reasons:

  • the amount of documents and e-mail correspondence has grown significantly so that even though a lot less is printed on paper, in the end the piles of paper have not diminished;
  • you or your fellow lawyers have a hard time completely trusting the 'digital' copy of your files and feel more secure (consciously or subconsciously) knowing that there is a paper version of the entire case in your cabinet (or the company archives);
  • there is this belief within your firm that having a physical copy of a document (or e-mail) gives it more legal validity (i.e. it could more easily be used as 'legal proof'). This belief is based on false assumptions but can be hard to get rid of;
  • you like to read everything from paper and have a hard time throwing anything away;
  • you refuse to use the computer and have your secretary print every single e-mail or have the intern print everything they can find through Legal Intelligence (or any other know-how database) on a certain subject for a current matter;
  • you love the smell of paper and having a room full of bulging matter files makes you feel alive. Plus you love having your clients visit you and impress them with the amount of information you gather on their case.

Some very good reasons to get rid of paper

From the perspective of the modern firm manager, paper is a costly thorn in the eye. From my perspective, as a minimalist and environmentally conscious person, paper is quite evil. Paper is simply a big waste of resources:

  • costly to purchase (and costly to print on). The cost of the printers, including all the resources they use (power, IT support, maintenance, etc.), also has to be taken into account;
  • costly to store. Think of all the warehouses full of paper archives that we accumulated over the past decades. First, your paper files will probably live inside your office for a while. I have seen plenty of lawyers who can not find certain matter files on a daily basis with it either being lost in the piles somewhere, misplaced by a secretary, given (and forgotten that it was) to a junior lawyer for further study, etc. After a while, the file may be stored in a cabinet and eventually be send of to an external archive just in case it will be needed again in the future;
  • costly to handle. Searching for that one document in a huge binder or tracking down that certain invoice in a pile of similar looking invoices. Having to arrange different storage for the files as they get older and older or arranging for them to be destroyed. These are just a few example of the 'handling' cost of paper;
  • a huge waste of our earthly resources.

So not only does paper involve a large share of material resources, there is also a lot of time involved with the handling of paper (printing, finding, sorting, archiving). The elimination of paper is probably one of the largest reasons a modern lawyer can do without secretarial support much easier.

Start eliminating paper, now!

Is it hard to eliminate paper? No, not at all. You do not even have to eliminate all paper. If you enjoy reading certain things from paper - like that final due diligence report that you are going over one more time - than you can still print it, of course. The time that we all have access to excellent e-readers that can truly replace paper, is still somewhere in the future.
What I am advocating is that you do not try and keep the paper in your office anymore. So after reading that final version of the document, you can throw it away (recycle bin).

Scanners that turn paper into digital files are usually ubiquitous in offices nowadays. Software for archiving your files are available in many forms. You can choose to have your digital files made "searchable" by making the text readable by your computer systems. This technology is often referred to as OCR (Optical Character Recognition) as a computer needs to recognize the letters of a text as separate characters.
Also keep in mind that it is important to store your files in an accepted "archiving" format. File formats (like Microsoft Word format or Adobe PDF) tend to change every few years and are not supported indefinitely. To avoid any problems, go with PDF/A.

Keep it simple (with going paperless)

My approach to the paperless office is to start of simple. One of the parts of your office that lends itself for going paperless first, is your incoming invoices. Invoices are usually entered into an accounting system and then stored away in binders. Legally you can just as well throw the paper version of the invoice away, and only keep a digital copy. Simply scan all incoming invoices and then throw them away. Store the invoices with the help from your accounting software or archiving software. Alternatively you can create your own system of storing the files (somewhere on your company file system). You could use Dropbox as a secure backup solution (and at the same time having access to these files from anywhere).

iPhone Cardboard Scanner

Two other solutions for easy-and-quick scanning and archiving that are especially useful for smaller firms (but could also be leveraged by larger firms):

  • use an iPhone or other smartphone (e.g. Android phones) to 'scan' the invoices and receipts by taking a picture of it. There are special scanning 'apps' to assist you with this, e.g. Scanner Pro for iPhone.
  • use an archiving/notes utility. There are specialized apps and services for invoices (Shoeboxed, JustTheBill) and there are more general apps for archiving everything (Evernote). I prefer the latter and use Evernote myself. Every invoice or receipt will be scanned (with a scanner or with my iPhone (through Evernote)) and synced with Evernote. That means that I can always access my archived invoices through my computer, iPhone, iPad or the Internet.

Now that more and more companies are sending digital invoices it also helps that these can be easily combined with your scanned archive.

There we have it, our first steps into going paperless. If you have any questions in finding the right solutions to help your firm become 'paperless', please do not hesitate to contact me or my company (Legalsense).

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Bram Braakman • 29 August 2010
Archived under: Consultancy, Document Management, Information Management


Matt Friesen wrote on 21-09-2010:

Thanks for the mention, Bram.

A quick update for anyone interested in organizing their receipts or streamlining expense reporting; JustTheBill 2.0 will be released in the next few months and include an iPhone application and automated data input!

Follow us on Twitter @justthebill to stay informed.

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